A Journal of Impropriety - Why didn't someone tell me there was a romance novel on the Hugo ballot?

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April 25th, 2013

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01:04 pm - Why didn't someone tell me there was a romance novel on the Hugo ballot?
I'd always thought that those Vorkosigan books were Mil SF or Political SF and just plain old space opera. (And looking through the plot synopses for some of the others it appears some are.) So it came as a surprise to me when I realized Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold was actually a romance novel.

So how do you define a romance novel anyway? (as opposed to a book with a romantic subplot, a love story, etc.) Here's what makes a book a romance to me:

1. The romance drives the plot. If you take out the romance elements, the plot would collapse in a heap. When Captain Vorpatril's Alliance starts off it looks like the plot might be "Tej and Rish are on the run and her family's enemies are trying to kill them. Can they escape and restore the family's fortune?"

But this is not actually the plot. The people trying to capture Tej and Rish are the inciting incident for Vorpatril and Tej to marry and then danger falls out of the book. Similarly, the restoration of her family's fortunes happens off the page and in the epilogue. The caper subplot serves to drive the romance between Ivan and Tej to a head where they admit to each other that they do want to remain together.

2. The book follows a formula. In the case of CVA, the formula is "A couple marries accidentally/enters a marriage of convenience and falls in love." My next most recent exposure to this formula: The Decoy Bride, which I watched over Easter.

3. The book will have a HEA ending. Yes, CVA has this in spades as Ivan and Tej have been exiled from their busybody/annoying relatives to a tropical island where they have to work around 20 minutes a day and drink fruity drinks and make love the rest of the time.

So, tick, tick, tick, we have ourselves a romance novel on the ballot, and to be honest, one that could win. I have to admit this does rather delight me as I would love to see the crown jewel of the Hugos awash in girl cooties.

Now the romance genre generally isn't my thing, but I do enjoy a good one now and again, and for a romance to be enjoyable, it's generally all about how much you like the characters.

This is book one million in the series and I have read exactly one novella in the world before (the really dreadful fanservice novella "Winterfair Gifts") so much like last year's reading of Dances with Misogyny, Bujold doesn't come with any cookies from me for past books.

This book could easily be a stand alone book - you don’t really need to know who Ivan is at the start of the book, though Bujold is clearly banking on it - she obviously wants us to see Ivan as an affable bumbler when to the uninitiated he's a creep stalker. Here's how our heroine meets him:

"Hi, there"--with difficulty he dragged his gaze from her chest to her face--"Nanja"

As if this were not jerkish enough, he then proceeds to aggressively hit on her until she threatens to call the cops and then turns up at her flat (which she had never given him the address to.) Understandably, this freaks her out. But even his apology is rubbish and reeks of privilege:

"Do you ever give up?" Tej demanded.
"Not until you laugh," he answered gravely. "First rule of picking up girls y'know; she laughs, you live." He added after a moment, "Sorry I triggered your, um, triggers back there. I'm not attacking you."

Yes, because the problem in the situation was her "triggers," not his creepy behavior.

I was ecstatic when he got tied to a chair to be eaten by wolves. Sadly, he's just marking time until he gets to be the love interest.

Tej suffers from the Bella problem. Which is to say that she is bland and uninteresting and I was quickly bored with her.

With two such leads, you won't be surprised that there's no electricity between them. The secondary romance between By (think Barney from How I Met Your Mother) and Rish suffers from the same problem.

The bit characters were more interesting, though everyone has the ugly American problem -- they find themselves and their country planet super awesome, sneer down their nose at others, and are shocked/insulted when everyone does not agree. They're sexist and classist, and not since JK Rowling and her house elves did servants seem so delighted to serve.

So here's the thing - the main characters are pretty dull and the plot isn't very interesting, but it is a readable bit of fluff. I'm not planning on reading any of the others (and really if you want me to think Miles is super-awesome and charismatic, you need to have him do something more than sit in a corner and snigger at his cousin.) Captain Vorpatril's Alliance feels like exactly what it is: the latest book in a very long running series that (most likely) lost its energy and interest a long time ago.

Finally, as an engineer, I must protest the implausible sinkhole destruction of the ImpSec headquarters (not that there couldn't be a sinkhole, mind you, just that the potential degradation of the ground below would not have been designed for.) Dear Ms. Bujold, allow me to introduce you to the concept of piling. nolove, me

No, it doesn't really matter in how well the book works, but it still irritates me.

Edit 25/8/13 Helloooooooo to the person who has recent;y been commenting on my Hugo posts. I haven't been responding because I wasn't sure you'd see the response, but I've been enjoying your comments.

(10 secrits | tell me a secrit)


[User Picture]
Date:April 25th, 2013 02:04 pm (UTC)
Why do you refuse to read the other books in the series? (This is a genuine question.)
[User Picture]
Date:April 25th, 2013 02:42 pm (UTC)
What I said is I do not plan to read any of the other books, not that I refuse to do so. (World of difference to me.)

The reason is simple - I've read two works in this universe and there's nothing in them that makes me want to read anything more. It's not as if I have a stack of Bujold novels sitting on my bookshelves - I'd have to go out and spend money on a book where I find the probabilty of me enjoying it is low. (Even if the book were free it would probably be fairly low on my TBR pile as I've got stacks of things I've been wanting to read, plus the rest of my ridiculous Hugo reading project, plus at least two books that people have loaned or given me that I feel duty bound to read.
[User Picture]
Date:April 25th, 2013 04:55 pm (UTC)
I seem to remember enjoying one or two of the very early shorts back when I was an adolescent and they were new, but the other stuff I was reading in those days was Niven/Pournelle, late Heinlein, and Battletech tie-in novels, so I wouldn't take that endorsement too far.
[User Picture]
Date:April 25th, 2013 05:34 pm (UTC)
I used to really like Niven back in the day. Also Frank Herbert. Such were simpler times.
[User Picture]
Date:April 25th, 2013 11:07 pm (UTC)
*nod nod nod* I heartily agree with this statement.
[User Picture]
Date:April 25th, 2013 02:15 pm (UTC)
She deliberately started mixing romance elements with A Civil Campaign (hat tip to a Heyer title).

If you do try one, maybe Mirror Dance.
[User Picture]
Date:April 25th, 2013 02:43 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the suggestion!
[User Picture]
Date:April 25th, 2013 06:36 pm (UTC)
Ayup, I would second Mirror Dance.

Winterfair Gifts works when read in the anthology editions because it's basically a coda to the previous novel, but read on its own when you don't know who anyone is? I don't imagine it working very well! Fanservice is accurate.

Disclaimer: I am a fan, but a recent fan.
[User Picture]
Date:April 25th, 2013 08:34 pm (UTC)
I third the suggestion of Mirror Dance. I think that the Vorkosiverse novels range from "light entertainment" to "Holy fuck, can I write a thesis about this one?" and it's Mirror Dance that holds the high end of that scale.

The weird part is, when I started reading it I was really annoyed by it, for [spoiler redacted] reasons. But after finishing the book, the annoying aspects of the book are obviously annoying on purpose, as part of the whole freaking point of the novel. The book works on many different levels, and it's clear Bujold was doing it all on deliberately.
[User Picture]
Date:April 26th, 2013 09:26 am (UTC)
she obviously wants us to see Ivan as an affable bumbler when to the uninitiated he's a creep stalker.

Part of the problem for me is that I had not previously seen Ivan as an affable bumbler, or rather I had but I thought it was partly an act (Ivan was previously trying to keep a low profile because he was a bit too close to the throne for comfort), and partly that the person calling him an idiot tended to be Miles, who is super smart. And Ivan has previously shown himself to be pretty shrewd when necessary in previous books. So I was hoping this book would be about Ivan being forced to step out of that comfort zone, when instead it's about him settling even more deeply into it.

This is criticising the book for not doing what I want it to do, but it feels indicative of the problem with the series which is that it's settled into being an amiable bit of fluff, and Bujold wrote this book instead of the chronological follow-up to Cryoburn which would have been much less fluffy.

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